Head Coach Jon Gruden answered questions about the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl run and promised an all-out effort to repeat in 2003
Timing is everything, right?
On Saturday, timing turned an enjoyable day into the perfect afternoon for Patty and Keith O'Neill.
The O'Neills were two of the estimated 45,000 people who attended the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' FanFest on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. They spent a good portion of their visit in the stadium's West Concourse, in a snaking line that eventually emptied at one end of a long row of tables. At the tables sat a variety of Buccaneer players, happily signing autographs for thousands of fans. At the far end were seats for Head Coach Jon Gruden and team Owner/President Malcolm Glazer.
One small problem for the O'Neills, who are big fans of both Gruden and the entire Glazer family. At the moment the line deposited them at the far end of the tables, Gruden's seat was empty. The immensely popular coach had taken a short break from signing to join several other coaches on the field for a question-and-answer session with another huge group of fans. It appeared as if the O'Neills were going to get dozens of satisfying autographs, including Malcolm Glazers, but miss an opportunity to meet Gruden.
As Patty and Keith stopped to chat with rookie tackle Lance Nimmo, just three seats from Gruden's empty chair, the man they call 'Chucky' suddenly walked back in from a door just behind his chair. Patty practically bounced with glee. Gruden settled back into his spot just as the O'Neills were getting to the end of the line.
The O'Neills got Gruden's autograph, of course, and a minute to speak to the man who coached the Buccaneers to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Then they moved on to Mr. Glazer, to whom Patty said, "You're my hero."
Glazer, as he does every year at FanFest, sat at the autograph table for the entire four-hour FanFest, greeting thousands upon thousands of Buccaneer rooters. This year, he was showered with thank yous, as Tampa Bay fans expressed their gratitude for the work it took to build a championship team.
To Patty O'Neill, Malcolm Glazer was nothing short of a hero. Why? "Because the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl…I mean, come on!" she said. "They were smart enough to hire Jon Gruden as coach. They have been working their tails off forever. Since '96 or '97, the Buccaneers have been playoffs, playoffs, playoffs, then all of a sudden, here they are, champions! They deserve tons of credit."
The O'Neills, who attend nearly every Buccaneer home game but were at FanFest for the first time, were in the midst of sharing further impressions of the event when, lo and behold, Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin walked behind the interviewer. Again, timing. Squealing, the O'Neills were off to meet the architect of the league's best defense.
Such is the nature of the Buccaneers' annual FanFest. While there were dozens of activities at this year's event – from an onfield junior training camp to a chance to pose with the Lombardi Trophy – it is the interaction between fans and team personnel that makes it the team's signature offseason event.
"I think it's awesome," said Nimmo, who, as a rookie, was at his first FanFest. "It's great not only for the fans but also for the players. It gives people like me, the rookies, a real appreciation for the involvement the community has with the football team. It just motivates you that much more to strive for your city."
This year's FanFest crowd was the largest in team history, topping last year's record of 35,000. And nearly every player on the team was in attendance, scattered to a variety of locations at scheduled intervals to make it easier for more fans to get autographs.
The most recognizable names were seated at small tables in four different locations inside the club lounges, were fans with designated vouchers could get in line. As they waited in the air-conditioned lounges, they walked past dozens of monitors playing the team's Super Bowl-season DVD. At the tables, they presented such items as mini-helmets, footballs, t-shirts, jerseys, photos, magazines, Super Bowl commemorative books, hats, visors and calendars for autographs. Most wore team gear of some variety. One fan was dressed head-to-toe in a 'Chucky' costume, complete with a coaches headset over his misshapen head.
The players signed autographs in two-hour shifts, from 10:00 a.m. to noon and from noon to 2:00 p.m. The atmosphere held the excitement of another season about to begin.
"I think it's great," said veteran kicker Martin Gramatica. "We get to see our fans and interact with them a little bit. It's nice to see them in this kind of setting. I met a lot of people, and everybody wanted to see the ring."
Gramatica's reference was to the Super Bowl rings, which will be distributed to the team Saturday night at a private Ring Ceremony in Tampa. It was a reminder of what a special day it was for the Buccaneers; an afternoon with the fans to look ahead to 2003 followed by a night to remember the finest season (so far) in team history.
While the autograph lines were well-organized pockets of excitement, the Raymond James Stadium field was a teeming mass of activity. In one end zone, the junior training camp gave hundreds of kids a chance to run through tackling dummies and kick field goals; at the other end, the team's new cheerleading squad sat under a tent and signed autographs. In between, various Buccaneer sponsors, from Checkers to TECO, passed out free items and set up interesting diversions.
At noon, Gruden, Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Bill Muir and Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia gathered around a replica pirate ship in the south end zone and began a Q&A session. Fans gathered around the ship and took turns at the microphone asking questions of the four coaches, with WFLA's J.P. Peterson acting as emcee. The questions ranged from insightful ('Will the Bucs' offensive-line additions lead to more trapping and pulling plays?') to inscrutable ('Will rookie quarterback Chris Simms play on special teams?').
Kiffin told of the excitement of the Bucs' plane, returning from San Diego after the Super Bowl victory, banking low over the stadium to see it packed with fans. Bisaccia promised to do his best to end the team's kickoff return-touchdown jinx. Muir, who has been coaching or scouting in the NFL for 26 years, called the Tampa Bay fans the best he had encountered in his career.
Kiffin, who was greeted by an enormous round of applause, stirred the crowd up with a variety of colorful answers. Gruden, up next, then fired a series of questions to the assemblage, each one drawing a louder cheer.
"You like being World Champions?" he asked. "Do you think we can do it again? Is there any doubt whether or not we can do it again?
"I just want to say I love all you people for being here today. What we did as a football team, we did with our fans, and we're going to do it again, ladies and gentlemen."